Skip to content

Course completion rates in online programs

Online programs are frequently criticized for high drop out rates. This might have been an accurate view at one time…but no longer is. For example, at Athabasca University, our course completion rates are high. From the draft report:

As was the case in previous years, 85% of courses started by undergraduate students were successfully completed (the other 15% withdrew or failed; graduate and “non-starter” registrations were excluded).

Online courses that I’ve taught through University of Manitoba have similar high success rates. Why this difference between perception of online course dropouts and reality? I’m not sure. Perhaps increased use of social technologies and interactive learning activities over the last several years have contributed to greater learner success. Perhaps learners are getting more skilled at interacting online, or maybe better learning design helps to engage and motivate learners.

What are your experiences? Do online courses you’ve taught or taken reflect the myth of high dropout rates?


  1. Clive Buckley wrote:

    I designed and delivered an on-line science course to students in the USA (I am in the UK). I had similar completion rates – and most of those that dropped out did so in the first 5 weeks.

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 8:49 am | Permalink
  2. Jim Luke wrote:

    I’ve taught multiple online courses (and f-2-f) each semester for 8 years at a U.S. Community College. For both myself and most of my colleagues, it’s no myth. It’s reality. Online has much a higher drop rate.

    In my/our case, it appears to be related to the student population served. Most of our CC students are working, many full-time, and often have families or other life commitments. Their work schedule prohibits f-2-f classes, making online a preference. Unfortunately many of these same students over-commit themselves when registering for classes. They take 3 courses when they can realistically only handle 2, or something similar. Occasionally they get lucky, everything goes right, and they successfully complete their too-heavy schedule. But any little unexpected event in their lives during the semester and the whole schedule collapses. Then they have to pick 1 or 2 to drop.

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  3. Sam Bowne wrote:

    I have a 50% failure rate in almost every class. All my classes are face-to-face. It’s been that way for 11 years.

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Permalink
  4. Sylvain Vacaresse wrote:

    I’ve designed and I’m still teachning in an on Line Master’s degree since 2005 in France. Our average completion rate is about 90%. Most of our students are working full-time.
    The reasons of this very good rate are :
    - an introduction weekend seminar where students can meet each other,
    - the intensive use of virtual classroom during the session (at least one each week)
    - use of collaborative tools to produce group assignement
    It’s very important to create community feelings among the students to prévention drop out.

    Saturday, May 7, 2011 at 1:30 am | Permalink
  5. Jon K. wrote:

    I think the fundamental difference for Athabasca’s success is their flexibility to the learning. Combine that with the generous length of time to complete a course, and it makes it easier to finish. Not to make this sound like a commercial for Athabasca, even though I have enjoyed the classes I’ve taken through the University, I think the one thing is that typically online adult learners are motivated moreso than face to face learners.

    Considering that Athabasca usually sees completion around 85%, it’s unlikely that it’s related to recent changes in online social habits. If it were directly related, you’d see a jump in completion rates.

    As for the myth, it’s likely to be the story with all myths, someone said something about dropping out of an online class and they told two friends, and so on, and so on….

    Monday, May 9, 2011 at 12:01 am | Permalink
  6. Rosa Ojeda wrote:

    Hi, George! Here, at the University of the Sacred Heart in San Juan, we offer mostly “hybrid” courses, except for one or two particular courses that run completely online. I could say 99.9% complete my courses. But that is not what really interests me; it is the process what interests me. I am really concerned with students’ not getting really involved in activities besides submitting the traditional tasks and assignments. It seems to me that the less structure I provide, the less initiative they take to grasp the whole learning process as their own!!

    Participating in discussions and sharing resources is very important for me. Most (if not all) of my courses are designed so that students have to engage in projects where they have to confront and pose solutions to real problems. They work on designing and developing educational materials, learning environments, multimedia productions, etc. for some community based organization, school, or particular learning project. Thus, they are supposed to learn the content along with designing the project. I provide them with some resources which intend to serve as an entry level to course content, but also provide access to wikis, forums, chats, the use of Skype, and encourage them to use other Web 2.0 tools available, outside of Moodle. But they keep on recurring to face to face and telephone meetings. I can trace their access to resources online, and I can tell they do not “clic” them. Unless I make it explicitly mandatory to work on some of the resources which integrate multimedia presentations and wikis, for instance, they do not use these resources. In these cases, I could say use rate goes down to 5%. My students are master level students, thus probably they get more enthusiastic with the project itself than with the online activities.

    Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink
  7. Josep Grau wrote:

    Hi George!

    We, at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), a 100% virtual university in Catalonia (Spain), have course completion rates of about 80% (average) in our courses. The trend has been steady, at least in the last 4-5 years.

    Our students also have work and familiy commitments, but an effort is made from the university to make a good “tutoring” of the first enrolment process in order to adjust the number of subjects enrolled to the availability of time of our students.

    Thursday, May 19, 2011 at 4:28 am | Permalink
  8. Laura Ringer wrote:

    I work for Concordia University and we have a retention rate of 81% for our online Master of Education program. We urge our students to consider their lifestyle before registering as an online class does take a lot of work. Many students believe that an online class will be easy, Our program is a rigorous one year program that requires daily care. Online education is not for everyone.

    Thursday, May 19, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink
  9. Marie Greene wrote:

    I find the comments & results of the retention rate for online very interesting, and as a student pursuing a doctorate in education, hopefully I can add to my schools retention rate. As an adjunct faculty member for a small mid-western college focusing on helping non-traditional adult learner to succeed via an online course delivery system, I am looking for others who have incorporated a blended learning or totally online format in teaching. I would love to hear your ideas on how to make this successful. This is my first experience with blogs and am not sure how blogs could also be incorporated into teaching & learning. I’m looking forward to hearing from all.

    Saturday, May 28, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink